When the suggestion arises that Communion in the hand ought to be rethought, with a view of eliminating the practice, many people immediately make statements like, "What’s wrong? Aren’t I worthy?" or "Why is my tongue any better than my hand?" or "Jesus said ‘take and eat!". Eventually, all these positions boil down to one thing: "It’s all about me… the focus in Communion is on me." Sure, people can and do receive Communion in a reverent way via the hand. However, the practice itself undermines an important distinction between what is sacred and what is "profane" (properly understood). These concepts need to be reclaimed and reintegrated into our fundamental world view as Catholics. This is one of the reasons why I started the WDTPRS series in the first place: to bring people into closer contact with the actual content of the prayers, to take them beyond the banal translations and fairly empty phrases of the translations now in use. The same can be said for some other contemporary liturgical practices. With these few things in mind, let’s go ahead.
The following is an excerpt from an article originally printed in 2004 in The Wanderer.
This was part of an article on the consecration formula in the Roman Canon.
This brings us to the verb accipio which is of signal importance. Accipio connotes in its basic meaning “to accept”. With that fundamental content, it can signify “to take a person or thing to one’s self”. Thus, it is “to take possession of”. It will also mean “to take by hearing” and “to comprehend, understand” as in when in English “if I take you right”, or “I get you”. There are some other meanings also. Because the source of the text of the consecration is the words of Jesus, we must take account of the Biblical accounts of the institution of the Eucharist, in Greek. Accipio translates into Latin the Greek verb lambanô which also has the two-fold meaning of both “take” and “receive”. In Biblical contexts, such as in the version in Matthew of Christ’s words at the Last Supper, lambanô also carries the two-fold meaning. Which must we choose?
Accipio/lambanô is twice used in our passage from the consecration of the Mass just as it is more than once in Gospel account of the Last Supper in Matthew 26 and in 1 Cor 11. When you consult dictionaries for the Greek New Testament prepared by Protestants the first meaning given to lambanô is usually “to take”. When you check those prepared by Catholics usually in the first place you find “to receive”. To cut through the middle men of modern languages I went to a New Testament dictionary moving from Greek to Latin, prepared by a Jesuit, Francis Zorell, during the reign of the Pius XI of blessed memory and then redone in 1961. This dictionary would represent the fruits of much of the first stages of modern biblical scholarship, but would have been published and then updated just before the major controversies spurred by the Second Vatican Council. In the entry for the lemma form lambanô the first meaning is accipio in the “almost passive… fere passive” sense of receiving a thing which is given. It is in this meaning that the dictionary cites the verses concerning the Last Supper account, Paul’s account in 1 Cor, and the Gospel of John 6:11 when Jesus took the loaves of bread that were given for Him before He miraculously multiplied them as a foreshadowing of the Eucharistic Last Supper and the celestial Banquet of the life to come.
Applying some common sense to this vocabulary, and the two-fold use of the same verb, I think it is not without merit to argue that the first use, accepit, indicates Christ simply taking bread into His hands: He reached out and picked it up with His hands. In the second use, the imperative accipite, is the command to take the bread He is extending in an “almost passive” sense, the sense of receiving – which still remains an act of physically taking it in some way. Let us think about who is doing what. Who is involved? In the first instance of the verb accipio, the subject is Jesus Christ, Son of God made flesh, Creator and Redeemer. In the second use the subject is the group of gathered Apostles. The first use of accipio is conditioned by how the God Man, the Creator, takes things from creation. The second use echoes the way we creatures take things from God. While we have an active component on both sides of the accipio coin, certainly we can lend to God a greater sense of the active and to us more of a passive dimension. At the Last Supper and in the Mass Jesus takes/takes and we receive/take. Read accipio (applied to us) in light of the Greek of Paul’s observation: “What do you have that you did not receive (tÃƒÂ ÃƒÂ©xeis, hò ouk ÃƒÂ©labes from lambanô of course) And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” (1 Cor 4:7 – RSV)
Why is this important? How often today do we hear the Communion in the hand debate? The Greek of the Gospel and Paul’s letter, and the Latin of the consecration in the Mass cannot, I believe, justify Communion in the hand simply because in English we can translate both occurances of accipio in the formula of consecration as “took…take”. There is, as I demonstrate above, “take/take” and “receive/take”. At the same time, lest you get all excited, this passage does not absolutely confirm only Communion directly on the tongue. The manner of taking/receiving is not specific in the verb though some will argue that lambanô can mean “take with the hand” (and it can!). I would note in passing that when at the Last Supper Jesus gave food to Judas, it had been dipped in liquid and thus would have been placed directly into Judas’ mouth, certainly not his hand. However, without question the narrative/consecration of the Host at Mass coveys a sense of “direction”: from God and to us. God takes. We receive, whether by taking it or by having it imposed in some way.
We are living in very difficult times. In wealthy countries there is a pervasive undercurrent of selfishness and self-centeredness. We live in a time when “I… me… my… mine…” permeates the common worldview. Have we come to the point also in which we as comfortable Catholics are saying, “Gimme!” in reference to the Eucharist? Of course, you say, “I now take!” need not be “Gimme!” But observe. If anything were needed today, it seems to me, is a way of underscoring even to the extent of using even dramatic physical gestures, what we believe taking/reception of the Body and Blood of the Lord really is for us. In a time when to kneel is considered lowly, then kneeling is a dramatic gesture. It is counter-cultural. It is a “sign of contradiction” in the face of “I… me… my… mine….” By kneeling my body cries out: “You…. You… Your… Your….”
In about A.D. 413 St. Augustine of Hippo preached on Easter morning to the neophytes baptized during the night. They are about to receive Communion for the second time. Listen to Augustine! He has long been battling the Donatists, rigorists who insist upon a Church of the pure only. Donatists have set up their schismatic altars against legitimate Catholics altars, which the new Catholics are now able to participate in:
You must know what you have received (accepistis), what you ought to receive (accipere) daily! That bread which you see on the altar, having been sanctified by the Word of God is the Body of Christ. That chalice, or rather what the chalice contains, sanctified through the Word of God is the Blood of Christ. By means of these the Lord Christ wanted to entrust (to us) His own Body and Blood, which for us He poured out for the remission of sins. Si bene accepistis, vos estis quod accepistis … If you have received this well, then you are what you have received! For the Apostle said: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body…” (cf. 1 Cor 10:17 – RSV). In this bread, the way in which you ought to love unity is being entrusted to you!” (s. 227).
I offer with urgency this ancient morsel, full of meaning, savory even now, to the mouth of any who resists unity in the Catholic Church. If you will avoid brethren and shepherds, or set altar against altar, or (quod Deus avertat!) leave Catholics altars of Sacrifice where unity is most perfectly made manifest, the stay or leave, but what you will chose to do, do quickly.